Quora Answer: What is it like to attend graduate school for philosophy?

Oct 18 2014

I was asked to answer this, but I did not attend graduate school for philosophy. I am self-taught for the most part. My degrees are in Sociology and Systems Engineering, but my dissertations were very philosophical in those disciplines and for all intents and purposes I was doing my degree in philosophy as a subject even if not in the discipline of philosophy proper. This has good and bad things about it. A good thing is that one is not bound by the strictures of the academic discipline of philosophy, the bad thing is that one is not being mentored by someone who really knows the subject. But if it is a new subject that others are not yet expert in, as Continental Philosophy was in English when I went to school, i.e. there were very few people who were interested in Continental Philosophy who were not on the continent, then mentorship is less of an issue, and you are thrown back on your own resources anyway, and by being outside the Analytically saturated philosophy discipline is then a great help since one is not bound to writing boring papers, but can explore freely the new subject matter of philosophy that is infinitely more interesting than anything that Analytically philosophers have come up with so far. That is because Continental Philosophers discovered the strange fact that there are different kinds or modalities of Being as experienced phenomenologically by human beings beneath the relified level of subject/object distinction, i.e. at the level of being-in-the-world of Dasein. This fundamental shift in the nature of philosophy is still not well appreciated.

So what was it like to be studying Continental Philosophy in an Analytically world but be outside the discipline of philosophy, and in another discipline? It was wonderful. It was an amazing intellectual adventure which has continued ever since and continues to unfold in amazing ways. We talk about inter-disciplinarity and trans-disciplinarity but few people ever get a chance to do it. I got a chance to do it because the English system is such that you can do work beyond your discipline if your adviser allows it, and my adviser was very tolerant in that way. But that is more possible with philosophy than other disciplines because philosophy impinges on all other disciplines being the origin of all other disciplines and being more general than all other disciplines.

However, one problem is that because most scholars are stuck in their discipline and don’t learn anything beyond that most of my work is incomprehensible to others. That is because I start out assuming that you will know many different disciplines so that we can speak about them freely in their relation to each other. If you don’t know that then you are going to get lost when you read my papers because you need to take a Hyperborean viewpoint that is trans and interdsicpinary in order to understand them. I like this term which I get from S. Rosen’s commentary The Mask of Enlightenment on Nietzsche who says that Zarathustra takes a Hypoborean viewpoint which is a perspective across all other perspectives. The Hypoboreans live in a place in the far north which cannot be gotten to either by land or see and is beyond where the winds come from. Getting to such a viewpoint can only be done if you take your education into your own hands, and you read across disciplines, and you follow your subject where ever it may lead across disciplinary boundaries, learning each discipline as much as necessary along the way. Learning as much as necessary does not lead to mastery, and so one must settle in many cases with being a jack of all trades because knowing everything about everything is impossible. But it does not mean you need to be a master of none. One only needs to master the crucial disciplines to your problematic. But there is no reason to exclude other disciplines due to arbitrary academic boundaries set up in university in order to limit scholarship. Independent scholars are truly independent and can study what they like to the depth that they like and thus come to know much more than scholars that are hemmed in by artificial disciplinary boundaries that they must respect if they are going to advance in their career.

Even with the rise of interest in Continental Philosophy in America and England it is still treated disciplinarily. Mostly it is pursued by people in English departments whose understanding of it is questionable. But fortunately there aer now some schools where you can get a good grounding in Continental Philosophy in a Philosophy department. So for instance UCI is such a school and at that school I took classes from Martin Schwab who recently retired who really helped me understand some of the fundamentals of Continental Philosophy. I wish I had been able to take more of his courses because he is someone who really knows the subject deeply and very well and from whom it is possible to learn a lot about Continental Philosophy. Finding a mentor like that is very important because there are many ways to go astray without knowing it in a discipline in which you are self-taught. But it took me years to find that kind of person who really knew the subject much more deeply than I did myself and who could give me hints as to what I might have misunderstood along the way. So just because you are outside a discipline does not mean you cannot find a mentor in that discipline.

In general we need to remember that our highest priority is to pursue a course that is going to lead to intellectual adventures of the first rank. You will sometimes find that is possible in a discipline. But for the most part what ever can be done in a discipline has probably already been done. The wide open territory is in the interstices and lacunae between disciplines, in the blindspots of our tradition, of which there are many lurking beyond the prison walls of given disciplines. There are of course guards on those walls that lead to the wilderness which is untrammeled beyond the asphalt patchwork of pavings of various disciplines. But if you can avoid being knocked off by the guards whom you fear will curtail your career, then you can venture out into those verdant pastures beyond the pale, they give way to roads less traveled, and then to tracks and paths and eventually to places where no one has trodden where new vistas open up within the mountains of thought that Nietzsche discovered and at the perennial of which he placed Zarathustra. Of course as he says there is solitude there, because very few will venture beyond the boundaries of their disciplines. But in the solitude there is also deep insights to be had along the way as one travels where few minds have gone before. And this is especially true in our time when so much has been discovered in various disciplines unexploited by other disciplines in the solution of their problems.

In order to find this untrammeled territory one must first discover a problematic that will guide beforehand your questioning. Having a problematic that is deep enough is always a difficult thing to find, but once you find it then you need only follow your own fascination as discovery gives way to discovery based on the hard work you do learning what is necessary to pursue your independent course of inquiry. Many times it will take years of fruitless work before you gain the necessary insight, and normally that comes after all the avenues you can think of have failed. But the important thing to realize is that today the new continents to explore like within no longer in the outside world as new geographies. On the map of our discipline coverage of the realms of knowledge there are still many undefined areas, places where we think we will fall off the edge of the map of knowledge if we go there, and places where monsters roam freely.

I recommend that what every your discipline you learn to navigate to those places where the map of knowledge is vague or non-existent between or across disciplines and plumb those depths, which are of course the depths of your own self.

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